10 SES 12 B, Research on Programmes and Pedagogical Approaches in Teacher Education
It is well established that school placement provides one of the most significant formative experiences for students of Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programmes (Darling-Hammond, 2006). While such placements are often acknowledged for their importance with regard to the practical aspects in preparation for teaching (K. Smith & Lev-Ari, 2005) there is a growing awareness that school placement experiences should be broader than an exclusive focus on classrooms and those practical activities most directly associated with teaching (Sugrue & Solbrekke, 2017). This is evident in a number of developments within teacher education in the Republic of Ireland, where the Teaching Council of Ireland has implemented a number of key ITE policies (Harford & O’Doherty, 2016) which give rise to changes that are particularly relevant in this regard. These include direction on the nature of the school-based activities that student-teachers should undertake as part of their ITE programme ‘to participate in school life in a way that is structured and supported’ (2013, p. 6), and a key shift in terminology whereby the term ‘school placement … replaces the term “teaching practice” [as it] more accurately reflects the nature of the experience as one encompassing a range of teaching and non-teaching activities’ (2013, p. 6). The ITE programme at the centre of this study has responded to these developments by designing a Contextual Engagement Period (CEP) placement that student-teachers are required to take in their host school prior to commencement of their timetabled teaching. This CEP is intended to allow student-teachers avail of opportunities to ‘engage fully in the life of the school’ (Teaching Council of Ireland, 2014, p. 1) and places a particular emphasis on engagement in non-teacher activities. Student-teachers are expected, for instance, to become involved in the organisation of school events, to assist with administrative activities, to engage with extra-curricular events and preparations, and in general to become immersed in the day-to-day life of the school
The concept of belonging, defined by Hagerty et al. as ‘the experience of personal involvement in a system or environment so that persons feel themselves to be an integral part of that system or environment’ (1992, p. 173), is employed as a theoretical lens through which to consider these developments. There is a growing awareness of the significance of belonging (also known as ‘belongingness’) with regard to the placement experience for student-teachers; Ussher (2010) for instance, found that student-teachers who experienced a sense of belonging to their host school perceived the placement to be an effective place for their learning, while Gray, Wright and Pascoe (2017) found that pre-service teachers who lacked this sense of belonging during their practicum experienced feelings of vulnerability and stress. Belonging has also been a source of attention in other disciplines that involve a placement component, most notably nursing education (Levett-Jones & Lathlean, 2008).
This paper is guided by two central research objectives. First, it aims to ascertain the activities that one cohort of final year student-teachers engaged in during their Contextual Engagement Period. Second, it considers how engagement in these activities undertaken during CEP potentially contributed to their sense of belonging in their placement school and how this, in turn, contributes to the professional and personal development of these student-teachers.
The study is undertaken with a group of final-year (fourth year) student-teachers on a concurrent ITE programme who undertook their one-week CEP in August/September and commenced the teaching-centred bulk of their 12-week school placement the following January, at the beginning of the second school term in Ireland. The primary source of data was the student-teachers’ online ‘School Activities Engagement Logs’ (SAELs) which they complete on a daily basis while on CEP, and which forms a record of this placement and the activities in which they engaged. These SAELs were accessed following ethical approval from the Institute’s Research Ethics Committee and expressed informed consent on the part of student-teachers (50 student-teachers in total gave consent). The logs were imported into NVivo, a well established CAQDAS (Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis) software package for performing the analytical tasks of coding, retrieving and annotating qualitative data (Schönfelder, 2011). The log entries were also anonymised at this time and the owner of the log entry assigned a pseudonym. In total, 519 log entries were imported for analysis, and each of the 50 students established as a ‘case’ within NVivo. Two rounds of coding were applied to the data: one to identify the activities that student-teachers engaged in during the CEP, and a second round of coding to identify the opinions and sentiments expressed by the students with regard to the CEP activities they engaged in. A second source of data was student-teacher responses to a short anonymous survey which was intended to provide further insight into their opinions about the CEP. As the final-year student-teachers were still on placement during the study timeframe, an online questionnaire was used to distribute the survey questions and gather the responses. The intention behind the surveys was to facilitate complementarity (“seeking elaboration, illustration, enhancement, and clarification of the findings”) (Plano Clark & Creswell, 2008, p. 282) and in this regard the survey contributions were valuable in providing further insight into the opinions of the students regarding the activities identified in the SAELs and their experiences of undertaking the CEP week. The open-ended responses submitted for the surveys were also imported into nVivo and coded.
The study identifies a variety of non-teaching activities that student-teachers engaged in while on their Contextual Engagement Period placement, which can broadly be categorised into Meetings, Observation, Assistance, Supervision, and Extra-curricular Engagement. It finds that engagement in these non-teaching activities during this CEP placement deepened student-teachers’ understanding of the teacher’s role both within and outside the classroom, as well as contributing to a more holistic and wide-ranging understanding of the operations of a school from a whole-school perspective. It also establishes that student-teachers were largely positive about this CEP placement and that it contributes constructively to their sense of belonging in the placement school and to the school community; in the words of one student-teacher, it ‘really gave a sense of being seen as and treated as a teacher and not just someone who was coming in to take some classes for a few weeks’. This increased sense of belonging has, in turn, a number of positive impacts on the student-teacher’s professional development that includes a stronger sense of their evolving teacher identity, heightened levels of confidence on the part of the student, and an increased openness to approaching and interacting with other members of staff within the school community. It recommends that further emphasis be given to the issue of non-teaching activities, particularly in the light of evolving understanding of practicum placements within teacher education literature and policy, and that dedicated time should be secured for student-teachers to engage in these important aspects of school life.
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